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Bell's Brewery, maker of Two Hearted and Oberon ales, sold to international conglomerate

Glass of beer with Bell's logo on table with cans and bottles of Bell's beer in the background
Photo courtesy of Lion
Michigan craft beer maker Bell's Brewery has been sold to Lion. The Australian company is a subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate Kirin.

Michigan beer lovers got a surprise Wednesday. Bell’s Brewery, the maker of Two Hearted Ale and Oberon, has been sold to an international company based in Australia and Japan. The brewery’s founder, Larry Bell, is retiring.

Under the deal, Bell’s will team up a larger craft beer operation, New Belgium Brewing, which is best known for its beer Fat Tire.

Brian Manzullo writes about craft beer for Spirits of Detroit in The Detroit Free Press. He joined Michigan Radio's Morning Edition to talk about what the sale means for Bell's and for Michigan beer lovers.

Change might not bring change

Manzullo says the sale won’t alter how Bell’s beer is made.

“Larry Bell was very emphatic that this is not going to change day to day operations,” Manzullo says. “This is not going to change the way the beers are brewed or housed. If you look at New Belgium, which sold to Lion in 2019, New Belgium beers have not changed. That's a really good indicator, that what you see from New Belgium right now is what you're going to see from Bell’s in the next few years.”

Bell's is the 16th-largest brewery in the country by sales volume. Here are some key details from the company's sale.

  • The buyer is Lion, an Australian subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate Kirin.
  • Bell's 550 employees in Comstock and Kalamazoo will keep their jobs.
  • Larry Bell, 63, said he recently had successful surgery for cancer, which got him thinking about what he wanted to do next.
  • The sale price has not been made public.
  • Bell says the company's beer recipes and brewing processes will not change.

This type of sale is common in the industry. An established craft brewery develops a regional or national following and then sells to a much larger corporation. Heineken owns the popular California brewer Lagunitas, for example, and Lagunitas owns a share of Short's Brewing Company here in Michigan.
Manzullo says every deal is different, but it's unlikely Bell's will follow the same path as Goose Island Beer Company. Anheuser-Busch purchased the popular Chicago craft brewer in 2011.

"Goose Island Beer Company ... was a Chicago staple and it still is. But ever since ownership changed hands, there have been reports of the beer being whittled down a little bit. The 312 Urban Wheat Ale, for example, being brewed in much larger tanks and being produced in a different way has whittled it down to kind of a shell of its former self," Manzullo says.

Options big and small

A Spanish company, Mahou San Miguel, owns a majority stake in the biggest brewery in Michigan, Founders, which makes All Day IPA. Now, the second biggest, Bell's, is part of an international corporation.

"This is sort of a sign of the times for craft beer. You saw other companies [do the same], such as Atwater Brewery in Detroit selling to Molson Coors last year," Mazullo says. "Some of these companies are making decisions that they feel will help them weather the storm of market saturation, the aluminum cans shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic."

But he adds that Michigan craft beer lovers who live by the mantra, "drink local," don't need to worry just yet.

“Even if you are turned off by these sales. Even if you are vowing not to drink their beers ever again because they 'sold out,' there is a wealth of craft beer in this state," Manzullo says.

"There are more than 400 operating craft breweries in Michigan. There's going to be no shortage anytime soon.”

Further reading:

"Bell's Brewery announces sale to Australasian beer company as Larry Bell enters retirement" by Brian Manzullo for The Detroit Free Press

"Bell's Brewery is selling. Here's what that means for Bell's — and all craft beer." by Brian Manzullo and Emma Stein for The Detroit Free Press

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Lauren Talley is Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition producer. She produces and edits studio interviews and feature stories, and helps manage the “Mornings in Michigan” series. Lauren also serves as the lead substitute host for Morning Edition.
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